Critics enjoy Globe's Knight of the Burning Pestle
The latest offering from the Globe's Sam Wanamaker Playhouse opened last night (27 February 2014)
...the rough-house nature of the play is successfully transmitted, although it does suffer from a strangely muted performance in the title role. Matthew Needham's Rafe is elegant in too blank a fashion… the show doesn't quite achieve the madcap blend of imposed fantasy and comedy spoof that leads to delirium. Still, Daniels and McLynn are spot-on, very funny… Waldmann and MacRae suitably straight-faced… This is an important play for all sorts of reasons, not least the variety and vigour of Beaumont's poetry and prose, and its compendium of vulgarity and theatrical daring. It's also got ghosts, non-stop silliness and rudeness, a gang of bearded woodland sprites in grey onesies, and a popular uprising in Mile End. What more do you want, exactly?
"Meta-theatrical" and "romp" are never words guaranteed to make my heart soar, even less so finding them on publicity material announcing a three-hour Jacobean comedy that was one of the toughest nights of my theatre-going career when I saw it previously. Never judge a play by its adjectives, though, for this 1607 satire by Francis Beaumont turns out to be a delight in a vibrant production from talented young director Adele Thomas… There are frolics aplenty — and more than a hint of the gormless nobles of Spamalot — as genres clash and the intimate Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, now thankfully endowed with more generously upholstered seats, proves itself the ideal space for a piece about audience interaction… All that's needed is half an hour off the running time.
The fourth wall is boisterously breached and meta-theatrical mayhem breaks loose in Francis Beaumont's 1607 play, now spiritedly revived by Adele Thomas… the excellent Pauline McLynn… As two rival plays-within-a-play collide and are subjected to constant interventions from these opinionated punters, the proceedings, which genially satirise both the conventions of chivalric romance and the bad taste of tradespeople, sometimes resemble Spamalot in ruffs crossed with The Real Inspector Hound. The anarchic action spills all over the intimate, candlelit playhouse and whether sharing her bag of ginger or her cure for chilblains, McLynn as the wife is a gabby, avidly partisan joy. But the play seems to me funnier in theory than in practice and the production, which last three hours and is punctuated by four "interludes", is in danger of flogging an in-joke to death.
…In some ways, Beaumont's play is an even better bet for this intimate, indoor theatre since it depends heavily on audience intervention… Adele Thomas's spirited production… I could have done without the brief interludes between each act which halt the comic momentum. Otherwise, Thomas's production shrewdly balances romantic satire and civic realism… It's a production that takes the play off the academic shelf and gives it new life, with lively performances all round. In the play-within-the-play, John Dougall as an angry merchant, and Alex Waldmann and Dickon Tyrrell as rival suitors for his daughter's hand especially impress. Nigel Hess provides beguiling music for the almost dementedly cheerful character of Old Merrythought who can never stop singing. If you can imagine such a thing as a metatheatrical romp, this is it.
…Its form is complex, sometimes downright muddling… The hecklers are played beautifully by Phil Daniels and Pauline McLynn, but Adele Thomas's production while big on fizz, was less able to make me follow it all or care… Matthew Needham's Rafe, who starts out with stilted bravado as he tries to play a hero, grows in stature rather touchingly. Dropping its fervid need to amuse, the show finds the stillness it needs to support its optimism… It's a tricky play to negotiate for everyone, and though this cast sometimes overwork it there are also some lovely touches... There are fights and pratfalls that put the action literally into the audience's lap. If you want an easy piece of historical parody, stick to Spamalot. If you've got patience, and a desire to discover something old that feels surprisingly new, give this one a go.